About a year ago, the French Fencing Federation (FFF) was facing an existential challenge: The number of young people interested in traditional fencing was declining, and French kids were more interested in staring at their screens than showing up to parry a la 16th-century dukes.
That’s why the FFF made a very controversial decision: to elevate lightsaber fencing — which up to that point was just cosplay fun for Star Wars enthusiasts — to the same status as Olympic-level fencing.
No Mind Trick, Just Practice
The physicality of lightsaber combat is part of the reason why the French Fencing Federation is now equipping fencing clubs with lightsabers and training would-be lightsaber instructors. Like virtuous Jedi knights, the federation sees itself as combatting a Dark Side: the sedentary habits of 21st-century life.
“With young people today, it’s a real public health issue. They don’t do any sport and only exercise with their thumbs,” says Serge Aubailly, the federation’s secretary general. “That is why we are trying to create a bond between our discipline and modern technologies, so participating in a sport feels natural.”
In the past, Zorro, Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers helped lure new practitioners to fencing. Now, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader are joining them.
“Cape-and-sword movies have always had a big impact on our federation and its growth,” Aubailly says. “Lightsaber films have the same impact. Young people want to give it a try.”
In building the sport from the ground up, French organisers have produced competition rules intended to make lightsaber duelling both competitive and easy on the eye.
“We wanted it to be safe, we wanted it to be umpired and, most of all, we wanted it to produce something visual that looks like the movies, because that is what people expect,” said Michel Ortiz, organiser of a national lightsaber tournament.
Combatants fight inside a circle marked in tape on the floor. Strikes to the head or body are worth five points; to the arms or legs, three points; on hands, one point. The winner is the first to reach 15 points or, if they don’t get there quickly, the fighter with the higher score after three minutes is the victor. If both fighters reach 10 points, the bout enters a “sudden death” stage, in which the first to land a head or body blow wins.
The rule change seemed innocent enough but considering the three weapons used in traditional fencing haven’t changed in about 200 years, it’s no surprise that adding lightsabers to the mix really ruffled a lot of feathers.
“Disney is not really welcome, I’m sorry,” traditional fencer Alban Garrouste told VICE News, referring to Lucasfilms’ parent company. “Fencing is a huge part of the French identity, so I think we should stick to [its] values and historical origins.”
For now, France is going it alone, with no other countries inquiring if they can import the rules to their own national fencing organizations, according to Lamour. But she noted that youth participation in the sport has definitely gone up.
Since it is still counting its practitioners only in the hundreds, lightsaber duelling has no hope of a place in the Paris Olympics in 2024. But hearing the buzz of blades may encourage others to give the sport a try.
Or, as Yoda would say: “Try not. Do! Or do not. There is no try.”